No one is more vulnerable to the adverse effects of a slowly-growing and downtrodden economy than working-class families. It’s become harder than ever to make ends meet as wages have largely stagnated across most industries, while at the same time productivity has risen resulting in more hours on the job, and less at home. The cost of living has also increased dramatically over the past two decades, along with the price of fuel, food, and education, making things even more difficult.
The struggle is illustrated in the annual economic survey, released last year, from the Paris-based think tank OECD, which takes a broad look at the overall economy for the United States. The survey digs into the details of several part of the U.S. economy, including energy, government spending, and quality of life. One other important aspect the survey examines is the family unit and the problems facing modern families in the 21st century.
The survey’s results were not incredibly surprising. Included among them was that the U.S. tax system is highly detrimental to economic growth, natural gas and hydraulic fracturing are showing a lot of promise, and that America lags way behind most other developed nations in public support services. The overall lack of support for working families is a huge problem, and one that ends up placing burdens on not only the families themselves, but employers and taxpayers.
Here are five ways policy makers and legislators can help ease the burden on working families.
1. Increase the Minimum Wage
As illustrated above, the minimum wage worker no longer conforms to the traditional idea of teenagers trying to earn some extra spending money. These days, the average age of the standard fast-food worker is nearly 30 years old, and many are forced to try and support their families on the meager hourly pay offered by most employers. Minimum wage is by no means restricted to food service, and low wage workers have quickly been increasing the size of their ranks over the past several years. While it has become a hot and decisive topic in many respects, there is clear evidence that the wage floor needs to come up, and that it won’t necessarily raise unemployment with it.
The OECD recommends boosting the earnings of the working poor, which can be achieved through wage increases along with tax breaks and policy shifts. The OECD found that before the recession hit, income for the poorest 10%of earners actually fell 10% in real terms, and it’s easy to imagine that number has only gone up. Although increases in the minimum wage put in place by state and local governments would have an impact on overall employment numbers, it’s widely accepted that it would greatly help out those who need it the most.
2. Expand Leave Times
One astounding finding of the survey is just how far behind the U.S. is when it comes to things like paid leave and maternity time. Quartz does an excellent job of explaining the huge rift, showing one of the areas where the U.S. falls behind the most is in length of guaranteed employment security for new mothers. Americans are guaranteed only 12 weeks of employment security, whereas in France, new mothers are guaranteed 162. That’s nearly a full year longer, to put things in perspective.
America is also the only advanced economy in the world that doesn’t have a nationwide paid leave policy for women who have just given birth. That does vary state by state, but there is no law at the federal level mandating it. North of the border in Canada, new mothers are given a full year of paid leave, and the OECD average is more than 54 weeks.
The United States is very stingy when it comes to public spending to support families, even though we do spend a considerable amount on social programs. You may have witnessed or even been a victim yourself of stigmatization over using assistance measures like food stamps, or become caught up in office gossip over a pregnant coworker and the benefits they have been awarded. If policy can be put into place to guarantee an easier time for new mothers and fathers, a tremendous burden would be off the backs of those trying to start families.
3. Develop Flexible Working Arrangements
The modern workplace has evolved, and so should work schedules. For many with traditional 9 to 5 office hours, being around when children need to be dropped off or be picked up from school can become problematic. Some companies allow workers to telecommute and complete their tasks from their own homes. But for many jobs — specifically low-wage and low-skill positions — that is not an option.
Balancing life and work schedules is becoming increasingly difficult as long working time durations have become the norm all over the world — especially in America. The OECD finds that 18% of workers are part-time, but full-time employees are working longer hours than ever. The long hours haven’t even really even been all that beneficial to those hoping to secure overtime wages, as loopholes in the law often allow employers to find ways around paying time-and-a-half wages. By working with employers to find creative solutions and establish flexible working arrangements, policymakers should be able to find another way to make life easier for working families.
4. Increased Access to Healthcare & Preschool
Childcare has been a boon for working families for generations. As costs have gradually increased over the years, finding affordable and dependable care for children has become a major roadblock for many families who are trying to make ends meet. The survey specifically says that spending focused towards high-quality healthcare and preschool is the most cost-effective education investment that can be made. It’s found that setting sights on those areas specifically provides better education opportunities, but also helps parents strike an easier work-life balance.
Many parents may want to work, but feel that they can’t otherwise take advantage of increased and more affordable preschool choices. Many states have insufficient licensing requirements and standards of care for preschools and child care facilities, along with staff members who are often unqualified to fulfill the needs of the children they are tending to. By increasing funding and putting an emphasis on maintaining high standards in these areas, kids will be better off and parents can focus more energy where it is needed.
5. Find Ways to Reduce Stress & Sickness
Many work places can offer a stressful environment, which can have adverse effects on both mental and physical health. Some people are able to adjust and handle the toll stress can take on their systems, while others are unable to adapt. Not only does illness hit workers and their families hard, employers end up with an economic cost as well, in the form of lost productivity and employees taking prolonged time to recover from ailments.
The OECD says prevention efforts can be taken by government agencies by monitoring prolonged sick leaves, disability claims, and job losses. Gathering more data and insight into why people are missing work and developing appropriate solutions to employee’s burdens is one way to recoup the costs. By working with employers to target work-related issues, legislators should be able to write up laws that help both working families and those that employ them.
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